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Frist offense

Politics | Senate majority leader torments pro-lifers, tickles advocates for embryonic research with a stem-cell reversal, and tempts the president to his first-ever veto

Issue: "Space: Dawn of Discovery," Aug. 13, 2005

For the past several months, Majority Leader Bill Frist had the job of overseeing in the U.S. Senate six proposals to escalate embryonic stem-cell research. In the Bush administration's eyes, Mr. Frist's job was simple: Stop all six and spare the president from having to veto a bill for the first time in his four-and-a-half years in office.

Mr. Frist took the podium well before 9 a.m. on a drowsy Friday-a day regarded by many as a congressional travel day-to announce before a sparse Senate audience that he had changed his mind on embryonic stem-cell research. After supporting Mr. Bush's nuanced research approach for four years, the former transplant surgeon announced July 29 that he would now support more aggressive study of embryos.

"To derive embryonic stem cells, an embryo-which many, including myself, consider nascent human life-must be destroyed," Mr. Frist acknowledged. "But I also strongly believe . . . that embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide."

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Senators backing further research that destroys embryos rushed to praise Mr. Frist. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter said Mr. Frist's speech was "the most important speech made this year, and perhaps the most important speech made in years." Conservative jaws hit the floor. Wendy Wright, a senior policy director for Concerned Women for America, said she felt like a close friend had disappointed her. "I am surprised," Ms. Wright said. "And [his change of heart is] not from a lack of information; it's core values."

The Tennessee lawmaker broke ranks with the Bush administration policy of allowing research on what has become only 22 lines of embryonic stem cells, lines in existence before President Bush outlawed government funding for embryonic stem-cell research in 2001. What's left is a race between those who seek to rush through whatever permissive legislation they can, and those touting preliminary evidence-including a recent report from a panel of bioethicists-that the benefits of embryonic stem-cell research can be replicated without the cost in embryonic lives.

Mr. Frist's announcement came the day before Congress' August recess. It bolsters scientists who believe embryonic stem cells, factories for creating every tissue in the body, can cure diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and juvenile diabetes. If the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which Mr. Frist now supports, passes, it will allow researchers access to federal funding to derive new stem cells from unused embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF).

The bill passed in the House in May with a vote of 238-194, then sat untouched in the Senate for two months. Many senators speculated Mr. Frist would let it die without bringing it to the floor for debate, especially given his support of Mr. Bush, who promised to veto the bill.

But Mr. Frist instead reverted to his 2001 stance on stem cells, which he articulated to the Senate when researchers first began experimenting with embryonic stem cells. As a surgeon, Mr. Frist's medical perspective carried weight with both Republicans and Democrats. Mr. Frist said he initially supported the more restrictive Bush policy because it would continue to make stem cells from more than 70 embryos available to researchers. Researchers have since bemoaned the quality of those stem cells and pushed Mr. Bush to relax the limits on federal funding.

As politicians, including some Republicans, have joined the scientists in pressuring the president, Mr. Frist and other pro-lifers are changing their positions. Fifty Republicans, many claiming solid pro-life credentials, voted for the House version of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. Meanwhile, as chairman of the subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, Mr. Specter threatened to pass the stem-cell bill by attaching it as an amendment to a health budget bill. In his speech, Mr. Frist hinted that the threats had worked.

"It's only fair, on an issue of such magnitude, that senators be given the respect and courtesy of having their ideas in this arena considered separately and cleanly, instead of in a whirl of amendments and complicated parliamentary maneuvers," Mr. Frist said.

The move raises questions about Mr. Frist's political future. Speculation about his intent to run for president in 2008 has flared since the speech. "Maybe he imagines that if he can only give in on this kind of issue to the moderate wing of the party, then he can position himself as an alternative to someone in the Christian right," said Graham Walker, professor of political science at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

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